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A Lay Person's Review of the Master: 俗人读The Master有感

(2013-05-19 15:08:10) 下一个

A friend recommended the Master by Colm Toibin to me when I told her I really enjoyed reading The Hours at the beginning of the year. The two novels have something in common in that both are about the life of a novelist(Henry James and Virginia Woolf respectively) but neither is a memoir. They are fictional stories based on the lives of real people.

In the middle of reading the Hours, I was irritated, thinking, Michael Cunningham was stereotyping the three women. How could he know what Virginia Woolf was going through in her life or what thoughts were going through her mind? How audacious he was to presume that she committed suicide the way he described it! But later the book won me over, because I saw his point of paralleling the three women's lives and the theme seems to be, if I understand correctly, at least one of the themes seems to be: Life is composed of hours/moments that are similar to everyone. It transcends time and space. No one is too ordinary and no hour of anyone is going to waste.

If my reading of The Hours went from "dislike" to "like", my experience of reading The Master went the other way around. I put aside novel-readings at the beginning of April because I felt my resolve of working on my accent was fading. But I got tempted to read the first chapter of the Master two weeks ago and got hooked on it right away. I emailed my friend saying that it seemed The Master was really my cup of tea, even more so than The Hours. But as I went on, I got less enthusiastic. I kept on wondering, waiting for a big climax and expecting to find out: Was Henry James GAY? maybe I was too gossipy and voyeuristic. But come on, isn't sexual-orientation part of a person's identity? If you want to know a person really well, you expect to know whether he is in the closet or out. It took only one semester for my graduate school classmate to tell me he was gay. The book covers five years of Henry James' life in 300+ pages. Don't I deserve to find out whether he was gay or not after reading it?

From the beginning, a friend mentioned Paul Joukowsky's name to Henry and he was disturbed and agitated about that poignant memory. I was eager to find out what had really happened between them. But no, the story continued and there was this servant guy Hammond that waited on him in Ireland. The way Henry was observing Hammond and being self-conscious really hinted that Henry was gay. But both threads didn't go any further. The story went on to tell the story of Henry's family, his sister Alice and a cousin Minney, both of whom died before the story started in 1895. Henry seems to feel guilty about their early deaths and felt that he could have done something or have been closer to them. Instead he left them and stayed in Europe, kind of on "self-exile".

Henry had a fellow American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson, who corresponded with him and they exchanged comments on each other's writings. She apparently admired him, as many writers, esp. female writers did at that time. To me, they were almost like soul-mates. But once Henry heard from a friend that Constance mentioned something that indicated the closeness between her and Henry, he freaked out and cancelled his trip to Florence where Constance lived for that winter. She committed suicide afterwards, partly because of her chronic depression during winters, partly, maybe of Henry's withdrawal and distant attitude.

Chapter 10 is about a younger sculptor friend, what's his name? Hendrick Anderson. They met in Rome and he came to Henry's house in England for a brief visit. The way Henry thought about him before his visit and the anticipation of his arrival, and the detailed description of Henry's imagining what Hendrick was doing upstairs before going to sleep. I was like, he is totally in love with him! But that didn't go any further either. Hendrick was on his way to New York and was very excited about his trip, which he embarked on after a three-day stay in Lamb House.

The last chapter is about Henry James' brother William, who visited Henry at the end of 1899, the end of that millenium, with his wife and daughter. We got to know more about William's struggle. Also, through a medium, Henry's sister-in-law said, Henry's mom said Henry was going to outlive all of his family, but he wouldn't be alone because his mom was watching over him.

That's about the end of the novel, which left me unsatisfied. Maybe because the story only covers 1895 to 1900 that I only see a slice of Henry's life? Or was it because of the genre, fictional story based on a real person? I have to say, not a big fan of this way of storytelling. I want to know Henry Jame's sexual orientation! Although I understand the theme is about his repressed sexuality. But is he gay? Wait, Let me google Henry James' sexual orientation. While I was putting "Henry James' sexual orientation" in google search bar, I laughed at myself: Maybe this is the brilliance of the novel. I guess, if I want to know Henry James' sexual orientation for a fact, I can go to a documentary or a memoir. If I want a fictional character, I can go to one of many Henry James' novels. This half-memoir, half-fiction story actually attracted a lot of readers because it is unique, it is different from a memoir or biography of Henry James, and a fiction. And Colm Toibin knew he couldn't beat Henry James if he created a fictional character. Instead, creating a fictional character out of Henry James's biography made the book a sensation. The theme, according to Wiki, is "not of someone who just represses his self and his sexuality but of something more complex and ambiguous, of somebody who copes with life exerting a control on how much he'd reveal, even to himself, and choosing to be a writer in order to achieve precisely that". I guess that's why I am just a 俗人, 哈哈, therefore the title "A Layman's review of the Master".

As a side note: the book was only short-listed for the Man Booker Prize but didn't actually win it. Maybe there are other people like me out there, being annoyed by this genre.

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